‘Nostalgia (noun): sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past; origin, originally in the sense of acute homesickness: from the Latin nostos “return home” and the Greek algos “pain”.’ Next time the bods at The Oxford English Dictionary want to beef up that entry with a couple of real-life examples, they should take a look at Rocky Balboa. It’s a shameless nostalgia-fest. Sentimental longing for the past? Check. Bringing it all back home? Check. Lots of pain? Just ask Sly about bulging discs, torn tendons and broken metatarsals...
Stallone’s comeback is the nostalgic pleasure principle in action. Sometimes familiarity breeds contentment, not contempt. Watch Rocky Balboa with a Friday night audience and you’ll feel the buzz. If the multiplexes have become temples of frustrated desire where hype leaves expectation bitterly unfulfilled, Rocky Balboa satisfies because it wants exactly what you want: The Same. Again.
Even the production legend is unoriginal: Rocky (1976) was the movie that nobody wanted a young, ripped Italian Stallion to write and star in; Rocky Balboa (2006) is the movie nobody wanted a knackered old Italian Stallion to write, direct and star in. That’s Stallone: always caught between a Rocky and a hard place, bouncing back off the ropes for one last fight, one last shot, one last chance to make us chant “Rock-ee! Rock-ee! Rock-ee!” again.
“It just wasn’t over,” argues Stallone in the excellent Skill Vs. Will, a featurette that occasionally feels more like a motivational seminar than a Making Of doc. “You think it’s over, then you go back, rehash it in your own mind like an athlete and think: ‘Maybe I just retired too soon.’” You can feel his righteous sense of vindication. Everybody laughed at Rocky Balboa, but it turned out to be the big little movie that could.
Of course, delivering more of the same doesn’t necessarily make Rocky Balboa a great movie. But it doesn’t make it a bad one either, and watched back-to-back with the original, it’s obvious that its strength lies in its skilful resurrection of the spirit of ’76. Time has made Stallone into a lovable loser once more, his Botoxed face, dodgy CV (Driven, D-Tox, need we go on?) and bus pass eligibility despatching him to Palookaville. That’s what makes Rocky Balboa work in spite of all the corn, the rabbit-in-the-headlights performance from Milo Ventimiglia as Robert Jnr or the adolescent graveyard grief over Adrian’s demise. Against all the odds, Stallone and Rocky are underdogs again...
Just as in the original Rocky, the first two thirds of Balboa are a slow-burning warm up, 80 minutes of butterfly float before the bee-sting finale. It’s a deliberate delay of gratification that allows Stallone time to noodle away at the character, the lovable lug, as he spars with Burt Young’s crotchety, cigar-chomping Paulie (“What, you haven’t peaked yet?”), tries to build bridges with his son, or chats up Little Marie (Geraldine Hughes): “Come dance with me, I ain’t that good but I’m probably better than the average bear... Where that came from, I dunno.” Stallone’s dialogue has never been better; it’s worn yet warm, like one of Rocky’s ancient tracksuits. In the blink of an eye, the ghosts of those sequels – Mr T, Drago, the brain damage, the robot maid from Rocky IV – are exorcised. Ignore numbers II to V, Stallone says. All that matters is the beginning and the end.
And then it comes, the moment we’ve been waiting for: the training montage, the steps, the punch into the air, Conti’s horns... and the gradual realisation that you’ve already seen this movie. Rocky won’t win but he won’t lose either – and neither will you.
Watch the clutch of deleted scenes and you’ll see what might have been, an alternate ending that lets the one-time champ save face but lose his big heart; it smacks of studio interference, a safety net designed by people who know nothing about what makes Rocky rock. We’re not here to see him win on points, we’re here to see the triumph of the fighter’s will.
Stallone knows it too: “They’re not cheering for me, they’re cheering for the character, Rocky. These people are true believers in what the character stands for,” he drawls on the behind-the-scenes footage as the crowd goes wild. It’s that blurring of art and life that Rocky Balboa draws strength from. Nobody wants to be Sylvester Stallone. We all want to be Rocky (check out the tourists in Philadelphia pounding up those famous steps in the Making Of). Hell, even Stallone still wants to be Rocky. “It’s a pretty universal dream to rise up and take your best shot at life,” says the aging star, putting his money where his lop-sided mouth is by doing exactly that in Rocky Balboa. The movies become real life and real life becomes the movies. Now that’s a daydream we’d all go an extra round for.